Warren Spicer, the guitarist/vocalist for the Montreal-based indie rock band Plants and Animals, started as an illustrator. This background still informs his songwriting process, to such an extent that "sketches" are what he calls the preliminary drafting and tooling around before recording a song. And for the new Plants and Animals album, Spicer is trying a new creative process. Whereas like most songwriters Spicer usually begins the process with a guitar and lets the words flow from the music, this time he's trying the opposite tack: he's beginning each song with lyrics before he has any music. According to Spicer, "I want to sing the words without a guitar to find a melody before there are any chords or music. Just sing and see what happens. Then I'll build the chords and harmonic stuff afterwards."
I caught Plants and Animals at the House of Blues in Chicago, where I was there to interview Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit. Plants and Animals was touring in support of their 2010 release La La Land (Secret City Records). Both acts put on a fantastic show. Read my interview with Warren Spicer about his creative process after the video.
I was into painting and drawing earlier. I still draw and think about music in a visual way. Like with a specific song, I'll refer to certain colors. I use some of that in thinking about music.
Do you think of songs in a visual sense with images?
I think about music like an image. With making a song, there are sketches involved. Instead of writing a song and getting everything down at once, there's a lot of preliminary sketches with bits and pieces beforehand. So before the song is written, I'll sketch out things like a plan. It takes a while before I have all the information and it is ready to be a painting.
Once you finish your sketches, what goes into writing a song?
It usually starts with a guitar, or sometimes a piano. The harmonics, like the chords and melody and rhythm, get rolling before any words happen. For this next album, though, I'm going to try something new. I'm going to write lyrics before I have any music. I want to sing the words without a guitar to find a melody before there are any chords or music. Just sing and see what happens. Then I'll build the chords and harmonic stuff afterwards. I've never done it, but it could result in some completely different stuff that the typical routine of playing a few chords and writing a few words, then building from there.
Why are you trying this?
I'd be joking around with friends, singing a couple of lines from a fake song, like (sings) "Oh what a party." The words had a way of finding the right notes and rhythm without music. They have no harmonic content, just a melody. I would like to tap into that freedom, where I'm not bound by the chords and rhythm that are dictated by the guitar. I want to fit the music around what works well with the words I already have.
Is that harder than starting with the music?
It's a work in progress. I find that if I do write a song fleshed out with the chords and rhythm, typically I can find the rhythm of the right words within it. The music suggests the words. I don't know what the words are, but I know what they will sound like. I mumble some stuff phonetically within the rhythm I created and then go back and figure out the words given the rhythm of the language.
But now I've got these lyrics in a book that don't have anything to do with any music. Whenever I've tried to wrap a sound around them, I've never been very successful, so I thought if I Ieave the guitar out of it and just find the melody with the words, I could have a totally different approach.
We're working on a bunch of stuff where I've got the mumbo-jumbo words and the chords, and I'm trying to figure out the content. Usually the stuff in my books suggests an idea, but sometimes they don't go anywhere.
How often do you approach songwriting with a topical idea?
Almost never. I think I've tried it, and it never works well for me. The stuff I am happiest with is the stuff I work the least on, that just falls into my lap.
How disciplined are you as a writer?
I'm always working on something, thinking about how to write a song. I've always got a guitar close by, so it's not like, "I am going to go to work today." It's ingrained in my daily life. I am disciplined, but it's natural for me.
So you don't call it work. How does that affect your inspiration?
Sometimes I have to just do it. There are different aspects to writing a song. There's the content of the lyrics, arranging the music, all different parts. Some parts are less creative than others, so what I've been doing a lot lately is trying to record different variations of the same thing. We end up with different sketches of the same thing from different angles, and then it becomes clear what works and what doesn't.
I used to have a home studio with a multi-track and all that capability. I got rid of all that; now I just have my phone and I record into that. Everything is one track sketches of the same thing over and over, whereas in the past I would have recorded an idea once and started overdubbing. We've simplified the process by stripping it bare and asking if it's a good song before we start moving on to other parts.
A lot of songwriters I've interviewed started as illustrators, but you are the first one to refer to any part of the songwriting process as "sketches."
It's a sketchbook right now. We just go in without worrying about getting anything right. We go in and "draw," just record everything. We know it's not there yet, but we record, then the next day change a few things. Each day we get closer and closer by looking at it from a different angle. We have a big compilation of unfinished, unperfect drawings, and we go back and pick what we want to pursue. Once the tune gets tighter, when it comes to recording for real, it goes from a sketch to a painting and we fill in the details.
In what emotional state do you get your best writing done?
I've had some pretty good breakthroughs hungover. There's some kind of magic in a hangover. When I'm not drunk, but I'm not sober. I'm just really open.
What's your revision process like?
Sometimes a line won't work and I see that I've been lazy with a word. But other times I can say anything, and it's so easy to say anything. It's all about the right time for the right word. That's the trick to good songwriting. If you get the right word at the right time, it's amazing what you can say. At the right time, it's a revelation. At the wrong time, it's flat. Especially if you are going to say something outrageous, you've got to make sure it's in the right spot.
What are you reading now?
Right now I've got a nice P.D. James book The Murder Room beside me. But I read a lot of shitty mystery books. But I do love Ishiguro's Remains of the Day and The Unconsoled. I was reading some poetry today at a friend's house and thinking that I should read more.
What's your preferred method of writing lyrics?
Always on paper. It's easier to manipulate when I have a guitar in my hand. Plus I don't own a laptop. I am pretty casual about the whole thing.
How do you know when a song is done?
Usually the hard part is knowing when to stop. I've gotten better at the "less is more" approach as opposed to piling shit on top of shit.
*photo credit: Brittney Bush Bollay